Soccer and language learning

“After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”  (Albert Camus)

I have been using the metaphor of soccer for language learning for a while now, trying to express its collective nature, its complexity, its embodiment, and its unpredictability.

Yes, I know. It would be easier to think about it as going to the gym. We do need consistence. Goals. Repetition. And we benefit from coaching, recommendations, feedback.

However, language is not an individual sport. Nor a rigid set of rules, as Leo van Lier reminded us with great eloquence:

“I remember a visiting jazz musician speaking to my son’s music class in high school. I was outside in the hall (eavesdropping), waiting to pick up my contingent of car pool victims. The musician (a rather well known professional jazz performer) was just finishing his demo with some final words of wisdom. He said that students should think of music as a creative exploration, something that just flows. He felt that the students thought of music more as a rigid set of rules and formulas that had to be learned by heart, “just like mathematics and foreign languages. ” This was a quite interesting comment. Why should foreign language learning be equated with mathematics, rather than with, say, painting, or music, or soccer? After all, as I argued in the last chapter, language use requires an investment of voice, and there is an aesthetic element in language use from this perspective, in the same way that voice and identity are invested in music, painting, and even in more bodily activities such as soccer (and of course dance).”

Like soccer, language learning is based on unpredictable human interactions. It requires creativity, tolerance of ambiguity, certain kind of empathy, critical thinking…

The successful language learner has played many games and learned from them, creating a persona, an ethos, a pathos in the field, knowing how and when to pass the ball, to dribble, and to improvise.

They have practiced improvisation and yes, “not improvising in the all-too-common and incomplete sense of just making stuff up and saying anything.”

An agency-promoting curriculum

Too bad I didn’t get to meet Leo van Lier, soul of our Institute:

“A completely passive learner will not learn. A compliant (obedient, dutiful etc.) learner will learn, because he or she employs agency, if only at the behest of others. In this way learners who study a foreign language in school because it is required, will be able to have some success and to pass tests. However, in order to make significant progress, and to make enduring strides in terms of setting objectives, pursuing goals and moving towards lifelong learning, learners need to make choices and employ agency in more self-directed ways. In addition to autonomy and related characteristics, agency is also closely connected to identity, and this emphasizes the social and dialogical side of agency: it depends not only on the individual, but also on the environment. In the classroom, an agency-promoting curriculum can awaken learners’ agency through the provision of choices and the opportunity to work as a member of a learning community on interesting and challenging projects and puzzles (Allwright & Hanks, 2009)”.

Leo van Lier (2010, p. 5)

Does anyone here speak English?

Professor Henry Jones: Marcus? You didn’t drag poor Marcus along did you? He’s not up to the challenge.

Walter Donovan: He sticks out like a sore thumb. We’ll find him.

Indiana Jones: The hell you will. He’s got a two day head start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he’ll blend in, disappear, you’ll never see him again. With any luck, he’s got the grail already.

Cut to middle of fair in the Middle East, Marcus Brody wearing bright suit and white hat, sticking out like sore thumb

Marcus Brody: Uhhh, does anyone here speak English?


Language Teaching: The Need of Conflict

As language teachers, simplifying grammar or culture is tempting. However, learning a second language is not easy nor simple. It takes not only effort but empathy and tolerance of ambiguity. In 1993, Claire Krasmch proposed a conflict approach. The philosophy of conflict does not imply to avoid scaffolding but, precisely, to prepare students for the linguistic and (inter)cultural blurriness of any L2.

So next time you teach, ask yourself. Is this scaffolding or saving face time?

Here is an extract from her book, Context and Culture (p. 2).  Kramsch_Context_and_Culture

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